A principal’s abrupt resignation at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) High School has become the turning point in ongoing efforts, among teachers and students, to ensure administrators uphold academic standards and increase transparency about on-campus safety.
In a Friday email to staff members, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Cluster XIII Superintendent Kim Martin thanked Dr. Joshua Emmett for his years of service before saying that his resignation would ensure that students “receive a high-quality education free from distraction.”
For years, teachers at Phelps ACE High School have complained about Emmett to the DCPS central office and the Washington Teachers’ Union. Complaints ran the gamut, from the manner in which Emmett addressed students and teachers to his unwillingness to include them in decisions about campus policies.
“We need to find a good leader who’s a fit for our school rather than someone who’s not,” said Leah Gimbel, a math teacher in her third year at Phelps ACE High School.
“Dr. Emmett was well-meaning but not structured. He would get frustrated and angry with questions from students and teachers,” Gimbel said.
“That would create a toxic environment. We worked through the union and had a folder of complaints we presented to Superintendent Martin. This was an action staff took to improve the environment of the school.”
Emmett, who has 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator at the K-12 and undergraduate levels, entered his role at Phelps ACE High School in 2018. Much to the chagrin of teachers and students, some of whom would lead a protest that school year, DCPS officials didn’t include them and other stakeholders in the hiring process.
For years, students continued to raise concerns about Emmett’s decisions, particularly the admission of students in the middle of the school year, some of whom had individualized education programs (IEPs) the application-based high school didn’t have the resources to accommodate. Earlier this year, students surveyed 150 of their peers and found that nearly 80 percent of 10th, 11th and 12th graders didn’t complete parts of Phelps ACE High School’s specialized admissions process.
Shortly after Emmett’s resignation, students hosted a sit-in in the school library where they expressed their qualms about recent on-campus incidents. Plans for the sit-in had been in the works since March 21 when a break-in and act of vandalism compelled teachers to hold classes outside in the school courtyard against Emmett’s wishes.
A student who asked to remain anonymous said the break-in counted as the latest in the series of incidents, including fights and on-campus drug use.
“There are amazing opportunities at Phelps where students can start careers out of high school with apprenticeships [with] multiple pathways in engineering, IT, HVAC and cybersecurity,” the student said.
“It’s heavily appreciated by a lot of students but we have issues with administrators who don’t care for these opportunities. We’re not viewed as students but [as] statistics. Boosting enrollment is their concern, especially with students with IEPs.”
Phelps ACE High School, based in Northeast, champions college preparedness, work-based learning experiences and socioemotional learning. It originally opened as a vocational high school in 1912. By the 1930s, the school, then named the Phelps Trade School, moved to its current location near the Carver/Langston community where it remained open for several decades before it shuttered in 2002.
Years after reopening as Phelps ACE High School, it hosts nearly 300 students who travel from different parts of the District to engage in coursework designed to prepare them for a technology-based society. In years past, Phelps ACE High School has gained recognition for its extracurricular programming, including its debate team and Young Men of Phelps.
However, another student who asked to be named as Tiger said administrators’ actions counter all of the redeeming qualities of Phelps ACE High School. On Friday, they counted among the several young people who gathered in the library as a show of frustration with the status quo.
“There’s too much happening around us to ignore it. If I’m at lunch trying to complete work and a fight erupts in the hallway, that takes my attention away,” Tiger said.
“This goes back to the admissions process [and] a lack of communication,” they continued. “There are things that need to be brought to our attention. Dr. Emmett sends emails that give communication but it’s not thorough. He gives vague answers to our parents.”
This story will be updated to include comment from DC Public Schools.